Episode I of Austen’s Mysterious Death: Sleuth Kirstin Leaves No Stone Unturned. Except the Really Big Ones that are Hard to Turn Over, by Kirstin Odegaard

Episode I of Austen’s Mysterious Death: Sleuth Kirstin Leaves No Stone Unturned. Except the Really Big Ones that are Hard to Turn Over, by Kirstin Odegaard

Today, I’d like to write about the most Googled question on the internet: how Jane Austen died.

Oh.  Sorry for that anticlimax if you were expecting a different question.  No, the hot duke is not returning to Bridgerton, ever.  We’re all just going to have to content ourselves with the equally angst-ridden viscount.

Now back to the second most Googled question: the cause of Austen’s death.  Before I started researching this, I thought I knew the answer.  But once I dove into the topic, I found several theories, all backed with compelling evidence.  I had to become Enola Holmes, scouring for clues and sifting through long forgotten details (which means that I typed the question into Google and clicked the links).  The abundance of ideas on how Austen died led me to see I’d stumbled upon a real-life murder mystery.  Without the murder.  Which I’m thinking now is just called a mystery.

Join me in delving into the clues…

Austen’s Self-Diagnosis

In January of 1817, the year that she died, Jane wrote, “I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.” The liver produces bile, so Jane believed she was having digestive problems, a relatively common complaint for the time.

A month later, in February, Jane mentions her rheumatism is mostly gone, but then in March, she writes, “I have still a tendency to Rheumatism.”  Rheumatism is joint pain, so Jane now wondered if that was what was causing her to feel weak and ill.

Five months later, on July 18, 1827, Jane dies, at age 41…and all she complained of was some joint pain and digestive troubles?  Jane, it seems, was not a whiner.  This contrasts with one of my favorite Austen quotes: “Those who do not complain are never pitied.”

Jane, I commend you.  Five months before my death, I will complain, and I will be pitied.

Austen’s Symptoms

Jane’s biographers were able to cobble together a few more complaints from her letters, and if we are to become Miss Mary from a Riana Everly novel, then we’d better know Austen’s symptoms.  Here they are:

  • Pain in her back, knee, and face
  • Digestive troubles
  • Skin discoloration: Her skin turned “black and white and every wrong color.”
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Fevers that caused sleepless nights
  • A weakened immune system
  • Symptoms that came and went
  • A discharge or hemorrhaging that lasted over a week that the attending physician felt was caused by “some large Blood Vessel [that] had given way”

And that’s it.  A more complete list of symptoms is impossible to obtain because Jane’s sister, Cassandra, destroyed many of Austen’s letters that contained medical details.  Doesn’t that just heighten the murder* mystery vibe?

*without the murder

Because Austen’s surviving letters had such a light tone, her biographers formerly believed her illness did not descend until she was around age 40.  A second look, however, has led many to the revised belief that she might have been ill for several years, contracting frequent infections that prevented her from writing.  (Aha!  So she did complain.  Good for you, Jane.)

So, how did she die?  Let’s dig into the theories…

Addison’s Disease

Addison’s is an uncommon disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough of certain hormones.  This idea came from Sir Zachary Cope, a doctor, in 1964, and the diagnosis explains Austen’s rheumatism, digestive problems, fatigue, and skin discoloration.

So, great!  We’re done.

Not so fast, Dr. Cope.  Enter Katherine White, who suffers from Addison’s disease.  She notes that, only two months before her death, Jane wrote, “My head was always clear, and I had scarcely any pain.”  In fact, Austen’s head was so clear that she rattled off a 24-line poem from memory to her sister just two days before she died.  Addison’s patients, by contrast, can suffer from confusion, slurred speech, an inability to remember words, and pain.  Lots of pain.

OK, Katherine White.  So what’s your idea then?


Katherine White believes Austen contracted tuberculosis from drinking unpasteurized milk, saying this would explain Austen’s joint pain and other symptoms, while still allowing for her mental clarity.  TB was also far more common during Austen’s time than Addison’s disease.

Exhibit A: Austen’s* handkerchief without blood *probably

Symptoms of TB include fevers, night sweats, and weakness.  Those check out.  But weight loss is also a symptom, which Austen’s family didn’t report.  In addition, since TB was so common, wouldn’t the doctors of the day have thought to diagnose it?

I’m going to stop holding back here and say that I know my period piece television, and people with tuberculosis cough blood into their pretty, embroidered handkerchiefs.  I didn’t read anything online about Jane doing this.  Since we know the internet is never wrong, that means either: 1.) Cassandra burned the letters that mentioned blood on pretty handkerchiefs, or 2.) My Netflix historical romances are not a trusted source of information.

The conclusion seems pretty clear.

Cassandra, I’m going to have to arrest you on suspicions of tampering with the evidence.

Stay tuned for more theories

My kids love Scooby Doo books.  In them, Velma often picks up a clue that sheds no light on the case, then says, “Looks like this mystery’s just about solved.”  Do you love how I gave you two theories that I then debunked?  Looks like this mystery’s just about solved!

But this post is getting a bit long, so I’m going to pause here after leaving you with, um, nothing.  But!  Stay tuned next month for another exciting installment of Austen’s Mysterious Death.

Spoiler alert: Unlike Elvis and Tupac, all of my research suggests that Austen did in fact die.  I was pretty disappointed by this reveal.  What about the unfinished Sanditon?  Or how about the Sanditon series on Netflix—When Sidney splashes around in the ocean naked, was this exactly the scene Austen intended for her novel?  Now we’ll never know.

Since I waxed morbid in this one, why don’t you tell me what’s on your bucket list?  I’d like to publish some of those novels I complete and then leave languishing on my computer, unread.  (Why do I do that?)  And travel!  You?


Here are some of the sites I used and enjoyed checking out:

https://janeaustensworld.com/tag/what-did-jane-austen-die-of/ (general info)

https://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/books/12/02/jane.austen.death/  (TB)

I also found this lovely post from Regina Jeffers that’s related to the topic (but she does mention a theory not covered until our next sleuthing session): https://www.austenauthors.net/reminiscing-over-what-might-have-been-with-jane-austen/


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June 27, 2022 1:29 PM

Thanks for the interesting post, I look forward to the next installment and more theories. On my bucket list is travel and read more.

Riana Everly
June 17, 2022 2:14 PM

Miss Mary would be most interested in hearing more of your findings from this quite fascinating investigation. (Thanks for mentioning her!)
I had always heard the theory of Addison’s Disease, but I never really thought about it. And yes, TB is not so pretty, although plenty of opera sopranos manage to sing long and complicated arias just moments before expiring of the disease. Hmmm…
I’m not sure I have a bucket list, but I certainly hope to make up for all the traveling I wasn’t able to do over the last couple of years. My next destination will be England and Wales. Where do you want to go?

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
June 17, 2022 10:51 AM

A mystery! What fun! However sad to learn she died. Dang! I was hoping for the completion of her work. I suppose I’ll have to depend on JAFF authors to give me answers as to who, what, when, where, and why on stories of ODC. I thank you for this post. It was hilarious and sad at the same time. How do you do that? My bucket list would be to travel to England and see all those photo shoots I’ve looked at over the years from JAFF authors that have… been there, done that. Blessings.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
June 17, 2022 9:18 AM

I don’t know. Lots of interesting theories!

Regina Jeffers
June 17, 2022 8:24 AM

You might check out Anna Elliott’s post on AuAu on Medicine During the Regency. You can discover it here: https://www.austenauthors.net/medicine-during-the-regency-10-interesting-facts/?utm_campaign=socialwebsuite&utm_source=socialwebsuite.com&utm_medium=social

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